Monday, July 04, 2022

Acts 8:26-40

Acts 8:26–40: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch


This passage continues to focus on a man named Philip. As a recap:

  • We were first introduced to Philip in Acts 6, when he was made one of the Church’s first Deacons
  • In the last passage he was in Samaria spreading the Gospel

His work in Samaria appears to be complete, however, because an angel of the Lord tells him to go South. He does so, and then the Spirit tells him to approach the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch has been in Jerusalem worshipping and is now returning to his own land, reading the prophet Isaiah as he goes.

Philip hears the man reading and asks if he understands it. The eunuch responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (verse 31), and then asks Philip to sit with him. (As a side note, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” sounds somewhat sarcastic or testy. Based on the context I don’t believe that to be the case, though.)

So the eunuch gets Philip up to speed on where he is in the passage:

Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

(verses 32–34)

I like the ESV Study Bible note on this:

Acts 8:30 The Holy Spirit directed Philip to approach the eunuch. People usually read aloud in those days, so Philip was probably aware that the eunuch was reading Isa. 53:7–8. A more appropriate passage could not have been chosen as a witness to Christ, attesting to the Holy Spirit’s leading. The passage cited focuses on the injustice done to Jesus, something that reflects Luke’s presentation of the cross (see Luke 23), as well as the death of Stephen, who followed in his way.

And, given this perfect launching point, Philip begins opening up the Scriptures to the man, telling him the good news about Jesus as they ride along in the chariot.

I don’t know how long this trip/conversation is, but the man obviously comes to faith. At one point they come upon some water and the man has the chariot stop so Philip can baptize him.

When they come up out of the water the Spirit carries Philip away but the eunuch continues on his way, rejoicing. Philip finds himself in a place called Azotus, going from town to town preaching the Gospel.


For this passage I spent some time thinking about Philip, as well as some time thinking about the eunuch himself.

Philip Being “Sent”

Philip doesn’t just decide to go South on his own, the passage makes it very that he’s told to go. He doesn’t just approach the eunuch, he’s told to approach the eunuch. But how is he told? It seems like a progression, to me:

Verse Who Action
26 An angel of the Lord Speaks: “Rise and go toward the south”
29 The Spirit Speaks: “Go over and join this chariot”
39 The Spirit Carries Philip away

I think this is another instance of something that only happens in the book of Acts, we don’t see the Spirit outright telling people things much in my day and age. But it’s also curious to me who the “players” are here…

Just in Acts

On the point about the Spirit carrying Philip away I’d be open to an interpretation whereby this is metaphorical (as opposed to physically picking Philip up and carrying him), though I’ve always taken it literally and the commentaries I glanced at seem to do the same. The ESV Study Bible notes compare it to Elijah being carried up to heaven in 2 Kings 2:1–14.

Regardless, even if the carrying away part is only a figure of speech there is still much more direct action by the Holy Spirit in this passage than what I’m used to seeing in the 21st Century in North America. The Spirit simply doesn’t work this way anymore—at least, not very often. (Never for me, though I won’t try to claim He doesn’t ever speak directly to anyone.) The most I’ve seen is Christians sometimes feeling very strongly they should be doing something and coming to believe that that is probably the prompting of the Spirit, but the Spirit actually speaking, and saying something like, “Go over and join this chariot,” is not something that happens anymore, in my experience.

But the events in the book of Acts represent the early, nascent Church, just getting started out. At the beginning of the book the Apostles themselves are still trying to figure things out; they’ve understood that Jesus had to die, and why, but there are lots of details they’re figuring out as the book progresses:

  • They’re Jewish—they were before the Resurrection, and they’d still call themselves Jews here in Acts 8—so which parts of the Jewish “religion” still apply and which don’t?
  • Jesus keeps talking about the “Spirit,” so what’s that all about?
  • He said He is going to come back, but when? And how?
  • He spent a lot of time talking about preaching to non-Jewish people, but… did He really mean that? All of them?

So there are some things happening in Acts that don’t happen later on; the giving of the Spirit by the laying on of hands in the last passage is one example, the Spirit directly talking to people in plain speech is another, and Philip being carried away is another. We don’t see this anymore but we don’t need it anymore either, because we now have enough written down and spelled out for us in the Scriptures that the Spirit doesn’t need to be as “hands on” as He was in Acts.

That’s a wild oversimplification, so let me go even further: a lot of the Spirit’s job, in the modern world, is helping us to understand the Scriptures when we read them. Yes, for sure, He’s definitely involved in opening our eyes so that we come to faith in the first place, but He doesn’t just go away after that! He’s always with us. He’s continually praying to the Father on our behalf (see Romans 8:26–27), and I believe He guides us in our actions as well, at the very least by pricking our conscience when we’re tempted to do something we shouldn’t or avoid doing something we should (though I don’t have a ready passage handy), but a big part of what He does, now that we have the full canon of Scripture, is help us to understand it as we’re reading it.

It’s worth pointing out that He can’t perform that part of His work we’re not actually reading the Bible! When we talk about suppressing the Spirit, this is the first thing that occurs to me.


The other thing that strikes me about the miraculous aspects of this passage is the question of who is talking to and/or carrying Philip: first “an angel of the Lord,” and then “the Spirit,” and then “the Spirit” again. Why are two different… er… “beings” called out? Or, if it’s the Spirit in all three cases then why does verse 26 say “an angel of the Lord” instead of just saying “the Spirit” as it does in verses 29 and 39? What is the author trying to tell us by phrasing it this way?

As is often the case when I have a very specific question like this, the commentaries I looked at were silent on the point1. 🙂 It’s not a big deal—either way, regardless of whether the instructions came from an angel or from the Spirit, it was ultimately from God—it’s just one of those things that makes me wonder what’s going on that I’m missing. I’m sure I’m missing something.

It reminds me of passages in the Old Testament where “the Angel of the LORD” appears from time to time, and there is speculation (though not full consensus) that “the Angel of the LORD” might have been Jesus. But here in Acts I’m absolutely positive that the angel mentioned—and it only says “an” angel, not “the” angel—is not Jesus. He could easily have appeared Himself, if He wished, since He’d already appeared to the disciples multiple times. (At least I assume He could have.)

But why an angel tells Philip something, then the Spirit tells him something, then the Spirit does something, I don’t know.

The Eunuch

On the eunuch himself, we should note that he wasn’t Jewish by birth. The ESV Study Bible doesn’t even assume him to be a “proselyte” (that is, a full convert to Judaism), just a Gentile who feared God, though I’m not sure why that assumption is made. I’m assuming they have a bunch of context/knowledge I don’t have. Regardless, the assumption is that he would not have been allowed as far into the Temple as the Jews would have been. That—as well as him being a eunuch, if that’s meant literally—meant that the book of Isaiah would have been especially meaningful to him; as they put it:

Acts 8:26–27 … The designation eunuch could have been a mere title (for a “treasurer” or trusted royal servant), or could refer to his having been emasculated. Since he had been to Jerusalem to worship, the eunuch was probably a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who worshiped Israel’s God but had not become a full convert (“proselyte”). As a eunuch, he would have been barred from the inner courts of the temple, which makes his reading “the prophet Isaiah” (v. 28) especially significant. Isaiah held out the promise that God would grant devout eunuchs a heritage “better than sons and daughters” (Isa. 56:3–5).

I’ve heard a preacher mentioning this point as well. What that tells me is that people who know the book of Isaiah immediately see this connection, even though the specific passage that the man was reading in Philip’s presence didn’t mention that particular aspect. The folks who wrote the ESV Study Bible saw that connection (which makes sense, they have to study all of these interconnections); the preacher I’m thinking of saw it; the original readers of the book of Acts probably would have seen it too. The ones who don’t see it (until it’s pointed out to us) are us modern-day Christians, who don’t know our Bibles as well as we should…

  1. My experience has been that commentaries are very good at pointing things out that wouldn’t necessarily have occured to me, or giving me historical context or other information I wouldn’t otherwise have had, but whenever I have a specific question about how something was worded or why something happened that seemed inexplicable to me it’s often a topic that the commentaries haven’t covered. Then I find myself using Google and seeing what others have said on the topic. ↩︎

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